Meet Prometheus


Last year, TTLA visited the downtown L.A. loft apartment headquarters of the The Prometheus Institute, an upstart, Gen Y, libertarian think tank. Founder and executive director Matt Harrison daydreamed about launching such a tank while he was an Orange County high school student, working in a grocery store. This week, TTLA runs "? admittedly, belatedly "? our 2009 interview with Harrision. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

TTLA: Let's start with the basics: What is a think tank?

Matt Harrison: A think tank is any organization dedicated to forwarding an idea or ideas. The approach can take a lot of different styles in terms of research or activism, or in our case, more marketing approaches.

TTLA: Do you consider Prometheus to be a tank?

MH: Yes. But there are a lot of other people who don't. It's one of those words with different definitions.

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TTLA: So we've heard. Could you talk some about Prometheus' mission and vision, and how you got started?

MH: Sure. I've always been fascinated by politics and policy, and I had a dual fascination with marketing as well. From an early age I had the interest to start an organization to combine creative marketing and branding "? the kind of stuff you see in the private sector "? with the intelligent approach that you see in the think tank sector.

Originally, this was an inspiration based off the work of William F. Buckley and guys in the latter half of the 20th century who helped ideas gain traction. Buckley "? whether you're a conservative or not "? he's know for making conservatism publicly acceptable. Whereas it wasn't when he started. It's hard for us to imagine that because it's such a big movement. But when Buckley started, he was really in the wilderness.

That one person presenting ideas can affect the climate of opinion in such a way that his or her ideas for the good of society could gain traction and eventually become policy really fascinated me. I wanted to do something similar to that for libertarian, more freedom-oriented ideas. I thought there was a need for that. I thought there was a lot of potential for those ideas among our generation.

There is a lot of support for the ideal of independence and freedom and I thought that if there was an organization that could harness the power of marketing, the power of branding, the power of imagery, and at the same time promote ideas that have potential, then there might be a market niche for a new kind of think tank that could really gain some traction and engage audiences that might not have considered the work before.

From the beginning, Prometheus was dedicated to doing things that no one else was doing. That's in terms of the methods, the approaches, the way we looked, the audiences we went after, the issues we targeted. We wanted to get people involved who might not know about a RAND or a Cato or a Heritage.



TTLA: Are PI's ideas fundamentally different from those of Cato or Reason or the Ayn Rand Institute?

MH: There are substantial differences. Especially from Ayn Rand. Obviously, they are what most people consider extreme vis-à-vis the mainstream political perspective. What we wanted to do is find issues that really had broad appeal. That's something where we're very different from Ayn Rand. We're not happy to be in the wilderness "? right but unpopular. We'd rather be popular. As much as possible we want to find the best areas where we can be right and popular.

One of the projects we're working on is called, "People for the American Dream." It's about entrepreneurship among the younger generations. That project could relate to things that Heritage has done "? entrepreneurship is one of the major issues that they work on. So they do similar work here but do they promote it the way we do? For example, we interview young entrepreneurs "? like musicians and artists "? to show as role models. We'll be releasing YouTube videos, DVDs, stuff like that, of these young entrepreneurs in their own environment. So compared to Heritage, the issue is the same. But the approach is very different. The audience is very different. The tone is very different. The style is different. The way it's presented is different.

TTLA: Keep going.

MH: Ideally we're going to have people coming out of college, thinking, "Gosh, what am I going to do?" Hopefully, they'll see, "People for the American Dream" and the project will inspire them to alternate pursuits. Whereas they wouldn't really see something by Cato. They'd have to be already involved in policy issues to get exposed to that.

We want to get people who aren't already involved in policy, they are just looking for a better life. People who say, "I want things to be better, I don't know how things can get better." Right now I think a lot of people are looking for that. We want to reach out to those people and explain that policy is something of interest to more than just experts. Policy impacts all of our lives.

That fundamental approach is very different from catering to the audience already out there for policy issues, and then deciding, let's give that audience what they want. We actually try to find new people, and we don't think anybody else does that.

Coming Tomorrow: No Litmus Test? And Clean-Up on Aisle Four.>

The Week

Monday: Meet Prometheus

Tuesday: No Litmus Test? And Clean-Up on Aisle Four

Wednesday: Sports, USC, and When To Stop

Thursday: Jay-Z & The Statue of Liberty

Friday: Snowboarding & Social Technology

Photo Credit: The image accompanying this post was taken by Flickr user Dominic. It was used under Creative Commons license.

Video and screen capture by Jeremy Rosenberg of 2009 Prometheus staff, including Matt Harrison (center). Left: Rand Gitlin. Right: Mike Kelliher.

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